Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Browns vs. Steelers (1978 and 1979)

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Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Browns vs. Steelers (1978 and 1979)

The Pittsburgh Steelers have played the Cleveland Browns more than any other opponent, and the fiery ire that fuels their all-time rivalry is enough to put the letters c-h-a-r into the term arch-rivals.

With Cleveland's recent series struggles and their absence from football from 1996-98, many are caused to question if the rivalry is still ignited with the same passion. 

Nevertheless, both fanbases hate to lose to the other, and no matter how one perceives the teams' current shared disdain, nobody can deny the hatred between the clubs over the course of the past six decades.

Familiarity certainly breeds contempt, and perhaps no two teams epitomize this philosophy like the two traditionally blue-collar outfits that share many similarities. 

Separated by only 143 miles, the proud cities play host to teams that both have fewer than two decals on their helmet and feature no cheerleaders. 

Hell, the two squads even share odd bodies of water, located by the confluence of three rivers and a lake named "Eerie," minus the extra "e," of course.

More importantly, both franchises proudly boast championship eras, largely predicated on tough defense and hard running, with a little pizazz mixed in.

Still, don't whisper of these parallels to either the Browns or the Black and Gold.  The teams and their fans may share a few characteristics, but most locals will tell you that it all "must be a coincidence." 

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In fact, a popular shirt in the Steel City states, "The Only Sign of Life in Cleveland."  Pictured below is a road sign that reads: "Pittsburgh: 143 miles."

Similar or not, the two cities had ought as well be entirely different.  When they play, the stakes are clear.  Either the home team wins for the loyal faithful, or a week of depression and denial ensues.  It's that simple.

Interestingly, while both franchises have a storied history, neither tends to win at the same time, a sort of yin-yang of NFL superiority. 

The Browns dominated the NFL in the 1950's, carrying that success into the 60's and demonstrating superiority with a 31-11 record against paltry, pathetic Pittsburgh during the two decades.

Since then, the Steelers hold a 55-25 series edge. 

In the 70's, fortunes changed.  The teams split the season series for four straight years in 1970-73, both teams winning all of their home games during the span. 

However, as Pittsburgh began to eke out victories at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the Browns couldn't find a way to even the score by winning at the newly christened Three Rivers Stadium.

Pittsburgh won 10 of the final 11 games to complete its first dominant decade in the series.

After winning five NFL Championships in the previous 20 years, the 70's saw Cleveland fall back down to Earth.  Meanwhile, the Steelers won their first playoff game in 1972, and the franchise entered a new orbit in the decade, ultimately winning four Super Bowls.

Never did the Browns' hatred and ire over the change in fortunes boil over more than in 1976, when defensive end Joe "Turkey" Jones picked up Terry Bradshaw in the process of a sack, pile-driving the quarterback in the cold Ohio turf.  An injury from the occurrence cost Bradshaw two games.

Adding more frustration to their plight against Pittsburgh was Three Rivers Stadium, where the Browns entered 1978 as losers of their first eight appearances.  Cleveland didn't merely lose because they were a bad football team. 

Sure, the Browns didn't boast the same talent as the clearly superior Steelers, but the "no-namers" worked together well, finding a way to scrap out victories against other opponents.  Yet, the Steel City was a bane to the Browns.

No matter how close quarterback Brian Sipe and crew came to finally ending the "cookie cutter curse," the Browns couldn't get a fix on how to win in this standard, bowl-shaped stadium. 

There was certainly something special about Three Rivers, from the stands shaking to the piercing volume of the contained, boisterous fans, and the Steelers knew it.  They used the home field to their great advantage.

In truth, Cleveland was not the only franchise that struggled to overcome the ambiance of the big bowl.  The Steelers boasted a 69-13 record at their home in the 70's, including an 8-1 playoff mark and 16 straight home wins to finish the decade.

By the end of the decade, quarterback Brian Sipe and his Browns appeared close to snapping what Cleveland locals called "the jinx."  Yet, with victory so close, the curse-laden losing streak was never more eerie or demonstrative than in overtime losses in 1978 and 1979.

In the history of the series, the two rivals had never played beyond regulation.  Now, in two consecutive seasons, they would need more than 60 minutes to settle their issues.

On Sept. 24, 1978, the Steelers hosted the Browns in a battle of AFC unbeatens.  Whoever won would be the top seed in the conference through four weeks, in addition to leaders of the AFC Central Division.

At first, it appeared the tormenting turf would have its way once again; Brian Sipe threw an interception on the first offensive play of the game.  Cleveland defense held stout, limiting the Steelers to a three-point kick.

Trailing 3-0, Brian Sipe, the Browns' 13th-round draft selection out of San Diego State (1972), began to show the arm and mobility that gave head coach Sam Rutigliano confidence in his quarterback.  

Stepping carefully to the side to avoid the oncoming rush, Sipe spotted running back Tom Sullivan open against linebacker Loren Toews.  Taking advantage of the apparent mismatch, Sipe hit his back for an apparent touchdown, responding at the start of the second quarter to Pittsburgh's initial lead.

However, Robert Jackson was called for holding.  The Browns were battling, but not winning.  Kicker Don Cockroft tied the game.

It was not tied for long.  Larry Anderson fumbled the ensuing kickoff after a devastating hit by Larry Collins.  The special teams turnover gave the Browns ideal field position, but Sipe was limited to two incomplete passes and a sack.

Cockroft put the Browns ahead 6-3, where the score would remain through halftime.  Defense was dominating the afternoon, but the deficit could have been far worse for Pittsburgh. 

On another nearly remarkable play in the second quarter, Brian Sipe eluded pressure and rolled to his right, eventually finding Reggie Rucker for a 51-yard touchdown bomb. 

The score to one of his top targets was erased, however, as Sipe had stepped beyond the line of scrimmage.

In the third quarter, defense continued to make plays in a contest dominated by untimely penalties and anemic third down offense on both sides.  Normally, a trip to Western Pennsylvania had translated into a slew of mistakes for Cleveland, but the "Stealers" were becoming the "Givers" in Week 4.

With the Steelers driving, an interception by Terry Bradshaw was returned to midfield by Browns safety Thorn Darden.  The turnover set up another field goal, extending Cleveland's lead to 9-3.

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Having seized momentum and playing the slightly cleaner game, it appeared as though the underdog Browns could possibly shake off the nerves and take a game in the "Steal City." 

Instead, it would be Pittsburgh taking away Cleveland's thunder, turning their hopes and aspirations into a gnawing pain at the pit of their stomachs.

Shades of Pittsburgh's decade of domination became thick shadows smothering the Browns.  The Steelers gained complete momentum in the second half, though they were unable to convert their execution into touchdowns. 

After cutting their deficit to 9-6 in the third quarter, the Steelers tied the game with a third Roy Gerela field goal with 2:35 left in regulation.

The game was heading to sudden death.  For the Browns, it was a chance to finally exorcise some demons despite blowing the lead. 

For Cleveland, the loss came in the most agonizing way possible: an egregious miscall. 

Returning the opening kickoff of the extra session, Larry Anderson fumbled for the second time, and the Browns appeared to recover.  Fans watched in stunned disbelief as the orange helmets pointed toward the opposing end zone, indicating a key turnover.

However, the officials ruled that their whistles had blown prior to the fumble, and the stadium erupted in glee.

Across television monitors throughout the Steel City and along the shores of Lake Erie, it was entirely apparent that Anderson fumbled.  In that day, prior to instant replay, it didn't matter.  The Steelers maintained possession. 

First, they converted a critical fourth-and-1 at midfield.  Then, they went for the kill.

After driving to the Browns' 37-yard line, Pittsburgh executed a play for the ages.  Terry Bradshaw handed off to Rocky Bleier.  Bleier gave the pigskin to Lynn Swann on an apparent wide receiver reverse.  Then, it happened.

Swann lateraled the football back to the "Blonde Bomber."  Then, Terry lived up to his "nicknamesake" and threw the bomb.  The ball spiraled perfectly into the waiting arms of Bennie Cunningham.

Cunningham hauled it in at the 3-yard line behind the Cleveland defense and easily strolled into the end zone.

Three Rivers Stadium erupted, an boisterous enemy to the frustrated Browns, who were now 0-9 all-time in their "House of Horrors."  Additionally, the defense had gone 10 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown.

If the Browns were dispirited following their ninth straight loss in the Steel City, they didn't appear to bring that emotion into their 1979 visit.  In its place, they began their follow-up trip with complete aplomb.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Temporary aplomb...

While defense dominated the '78 battle, offense squarely took its place on Nov. 25, 1979.

In a contest regarded by many fans as the best game ever played at Three Rivers Stadium, the Browns came to the Steel City with a great game plan that they largely executed: make big plays in the passing game, force the Steelers offense to move slowly down the field on short gains, and avoid turnovers.

Cleveland won the turnover battle, made dynamic aerial plays, forced the Steelers offense to trudge its way down the field...  and lost anyway.

Against the defending champions, the 8-4 Browns had the opportunity to pull even with 9-3 Steelers.  For Pittsburgh, who was coming off of a resounding defeat in San Diego (35-7), another loss would put them a game behind the AFC Central leading Oilers, who won earlier in the afternoon to improve to 10-3, so keeping pace was critical. 

Brian Sipe turned in a masterful performance, completing 23-of-38 attempts for 333 yards and 3 touchdowns. 

He began his fine afternoon with a beautiful touch pass to Ozzie Newsome.  The legendary tight end's 21-yard score gave the Browns an early 7-0 lead.  Unlike their previous visit to the doughnut, the Browns were assured not to finish with another doughnut in touchdowns scored.

 

Both offenses moved the ball methodically for the next quarter and change, exchanging two field goals each, bringing the score to 13-6.

Then, Sipe found Dave Logan for a 16-yard touchdown that extended the Browns' lead to 20-6.  Unlike 1978, no yellow towels were hitting the field of play negating the scores.  And, conversely to '78, yellow towels were not torquing as rampantly in the stands.

Forced to matriculate down the field of play in bite-sized gains, the Steelers put together a critical drive before intermission, capped by a short touchdown run courtesy of Franco Harris.

It was one of many times that the Browns would match muscle with the "Italian Stallion," who finished the game with 32 carries for 151 yards...

Despite his longest carry only being for eleven yards!

Sipe continued to play a career game.  Hitting receivers in advantageous matchups, Sipe riddled the Pittsburgh linebackers.  Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, and Co. seemed confused in intermediate pass coverage, and the Cleveland quarterback was unrelenting in his attack against the 'backers. 

Getting great protection and time to exploit these assignments, Sipe found David Logan down the middle in the third quarter.  Logan's sixth catch, giving him 111 yards at the time, gave the Browns a first down and goal.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

This set up the lone score of the third period.  The seemingly big, bad Browns would strike again.  Sipe hit his third end-zone target of the day, Calvin Hill, and Cleveland reclaimed a two-touchdown lead. 

The throw to the outside hit Hill's hands on the out route perfectly, and the receiver skimped into the end zone inside of the pylon. 

Trailing 27-13, the Steelers needed a timeless comeback to carry on the unrelenting mystique of Three Rivers Stadium. 

Another time-consuming drive netted "nickel and dime" yardage on every play, but the Steelers continued to gain positive yardage.  Moving the chains one first down at a time, Pittsburgh was very patient in its approach, when many opponents would have immaturely attempted the big play, which (crediting Cleveland) was simply unavailable. 

Capping the methodical march was Franco Harris, scoring his second of three touchdowns from a lone yard out.

A defensive stand gave the football back to Bradshaw and the Steelers.  If the issue was seemingly unsettled, a Pittsburgh mistake appeared to settle it! 

After an eight-yard run, Franco Harris burst through the line on second-and-2.  After gaining nearly 10 yards on the rush, Harris was stripped of the football, and the Browns recovered just outside the Pittsburgh 40-yard line.

If that wasn't enough to seemingly doom the 'Burgh, shades of 2010 reared their ugly head.  Jack Lambert blitzed Brian Sipe on third-and-3, forcing the quarterback to prematurely unload the football.  The pass fell incomplete, but Lambert was called for the personal foul on a late hit.  (So, who said those calls weren't made back in the day?!)

Bending but not breaking, the Steelers defense stepped up and forced another Cockroft field goal.  The Browns led 30-20 with 9:44 to play.  Cleveland was single minutes from finally breaking their losing streak in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers response drive saw a throw to Franco Harris in the flats cause more fans' hearts to hit their throats.  Harris, who caught nine receptions to lead all receivers in the game, appeared to possibly fumble along the sideline.  The officials correctly ruled that he was down by contact and the ball only dislodged because of the ground.

A perfect play action throw by Bradshaw found Bennie Cunningham over the middle, barely behind the coverage of Thom Darden and corner Ron Bolton.  The Steelers had goal to go at the 2-yard line.

Terry Bradshaw took an inexplicable sack on first-and-goal, driving the Steelers back to the 15-yard line.  He picked most of the yardage back up on third down to the 4-yard line.  Expecting a pass, the Browns defensive front separated easily for a Franco Harris touchdown on third down.

The offense did its part, and they turned the responsibility over to the acclaimed "Steel Curtain" defense to provide its share of the comeback work.  L.C. Greenwood was the team's best defensive player that afternoon, getting five sacks of quarterback Brian Sipe, three of those in the fourth quarter.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

 

With Pittsburgh only trailing 30-27, the ambiance of the "cursed" stadium surely began to creep into the minds of the Browns.

When their offense was forced to quickly punt, the noise in their heads had to increase.

When their special teams couldn't make a key tackle in the waning minutes, allowing Theo Bell to return the football to midfield, the noise certainly got excruciating.

And, one has to wonder just how deafening the self-doubt became when the Browns, who had led 10-0, 20-6, 27-13, and 30-20, allowed the Steelers offense to drive for the tie.

Terry Bradshaw threw foolish passes at the goal line, but the football gods did not punish him with a turnover.  Matt Bahr tied the game with a 21-yard field goal.

For the second straight year, the two teams would head to an extra session to decide the game.  This time, nearly every second of overtime would be used.

After the teams exchanged possessions, the Steelers had the football in the closing minutes of sudden death.  Facing third-and-10 from his own 30-yard line, the athletic Bradshaw reminded everyone that he is no one trick pony.

The speedy signal-caller sprinted down the left sideline, picking up 32 yards to the Cleveland 38-yard line.  The "curse" felt so alive indeed! 

The Steelers were in position to win the wild shootout, which featured over 700 passing yards.  Pittsburgh compiled 606 total yards themselves, a masterful showcase considering the lack of big plays allowed by the Cleveland defense.

After a draw to Franco Harris centered the football at the 20-yard line, Matt Bahr drilled a 37-yard field goal to win the game! 

Three Rivers Stadium erupted. 

Cleveland fell to 0-10 at the venue in eerily similar fashion to the previous year. 

And, the decade of dominance continued to trump the Browns.

In fact, Cleveland would not win at Three Rivers Stadium until 1986, finishing with 16 losses before finally tasting sweet victory on Pittsburgh turf.  The Browns finished with an all-time record of 5-24 at the venue, capped by a 22-0 loss by the "new Browns" on Oct. 22, 2000. 

If stadiums had a place among the clouds, Three Rivers Stadium would be burly and gray, still casting its ominous shadow over northeastern Ohio.

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have blessed their fans with an abundance of exhilarating games. The "Catalog of the Classics" runs deeper for the Black and Gold than most other NFL teams, especially in the modern era.  For that reason, many of the team's greatest games are easily lost within its rich history, a lengthy volume that spans six Lombardi Trophies and an absurdity of spoils!

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

 

Every week of the team's 2012 offseason, we will look back at one of the great Steelers games that many fans may not remember.  In this way, the epic bouts will no longer be...

The Forgotten Classics! 

Please enjoy these previous installments:

Vol. 1: The Immaculate Interception; 1997, @ New England Patriots

Vol. 2: Streak Busters; 1982, @ Dallas Cowboys

Vol. 3: Rookie Quarterbacks Collide; 2004 @ New York Giants

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